Football first infiltrated the borders of Spain at its southernmost extremity, British engineers and industrialists landing in Andalusia in the hope of exploiting the swathes of natural resources offered by the tin and copper mines inland. The processes were similar but the context different when the game was introduced in the north of the country shortly afterward; foreign businessmen of lofty social stature imparting the leisure cultures of their respective homelands on what was a relatively insular Catalan bourgeoisie.
While FC Barcelona was ultimately founded by Hans Kamper (later Joan Gamper), a Swiss commodities trader, another of the major driving forces behind the establishment of football in Catalonia was an Englishman by the name of Arthur Witty. Witty, a product of Merchant Taylors’ School and a part of the family which ran one of Barcelona’s most successful shipping firms, was steeped in the British footballing culture and quickly became an evangelist for the game in Catalonia along with his brother, Ernest.
Of course, during the late nineteenth century organised football simply didn’t exist in Spain, and any games were played in an informal manner. The Witty brothers, inspired by Gamper’s enthusiasm and driven on by an almost revolutionary zeal, organised a number of games between the workers of the businesses with which they had ties. In short, it was this pair of really rather typical colonial Englishmen who provided the spark which ignited the game’s popularity in the north of Spain.
Christmas Eve 1899 brought about the fledgling FC Barcelona’s first ever game, a match played at Bonanova race track against another local side by the name of FC Catala. Ironically, considering the club’s historical commitment to the cause of Catalan nationalism and identity, the starting eleven consisted of a rather unlikely bunch of foreign members of the upper classes, but they were men who had set their heart on building a club that the city could be proud of. Barcelona, who would later wear the red and blue colours rumoured to have been copied from the traditional sports kits of Merchant Taylors’, won that first game 3-1 (Gamper bagged a brace) and so began the long and illustrious life of FC Barcelona.
By all accounts a good player in his own right, Witty is credited – alongside Gamper – for introducing a style of play to Barcelona which combined both physicality and deftness of touch. Despite its amateur status, it didn’t take long for the club to become the best supported in the city, membership rising into the thousands relatively quickly and prompting the likes of Witty to look to find a more suitable premises for its fixtures. A piece of land was rented in the Les Corts area of the city and two hotel rooms close by used as the club’s headquarters; FC Barcelona was growing into one of the region’s foremost sporting institutions.
Arthur Witty’s final contribution to the establishment of the FC Barcelona behemoth was the organisation of the club’s first game against international opposition, Stade Olympique travelling down from Toulouse on Boxing Day 1904 to play the Catalan club at their new ground. The match drew a sizeable crowd as the home side ran out 4-0 victors, Gamper scoring another two goals on the as the club took another step on the road to broader recognition.
As the years passed the club became politicised to a much higher degree, Witty significantly loosening his connections with the institution he had helped to established, apparently uneasy at the political direction in which it was heading. Gamper went on to be the club’s president from 1910 to 1925, overseeing its development into one of Spain’s biggest and most socially significant football clubs.
Witty’s influence on FC Barcelona may have been relatively fleeting, but the impacts he did make should not be underestimated. A man whose enthusiasm for the game shone brilliantly, it may have taken much longer for football to take hold in northern Spain had it not been for his eagerness to communicate his passion to others. A raconteur as well as a sporting missionary, Arthur Witty more than deserves to go down in history as one of the game’s great European pioneers.